Grief must be left to run its course

5th April 1996 at 01:00
When Parents Die: learning to live with the loss of a parent, By Rebecca Abrams, Thorsons Pounds 8.99. Helping Children Cope with Grief, By Rosemary Wells, Sheldon Press Pounds 5.99. Helping Children Cope with Divorce, By Rosemary Wells, Sheldon Press Pounds 5.99. Everything parents should know about drugs, By Sarah Lawson, Sheldon Press Pounds 6.99.

Helping Children Cope with Bullying, By Sarah Lawson, Sheldon Press Pounds 5.99.

The first edition of Rebecca Abrams' magnificent When Parents Die was published in 1992. As a result she received letters from people of all ages, not just the teenagers and young adults in their twenties she had targeted, and began to realise that much older people were still grieving over the loss of a parent decades earlier.

Unwittingly, she had written a book which began to answer some of the anxieties felt by people whose parents had died when they were still quite young but which they could not (or were not permitted to) express.

Until recently, children were in any case largely excluded from grieving.It was somehow felt that they "would get over it quicker" if they did not come to the funeral, or if they were just left to play "normally". I still remember my anger - not yet fully assuaged - at not being allowed to attend my grandmother's funeral in 1963. I cannot help believing that the desire to exclude children from funerals was related to adults' inability to watch children grieving because of the additional pain it brings. But children need to grieve, as Rosemary Wells points out quite forcibly in her practical handbook Helping Children Cope with Grief. Adults need to understand this if major subsequent psychological problems are to be avoided.

Abrams describes some of the common reactions of young people who lose a parent in their teens or early twenties - eating disorders, drug abuse, confusion about sex and sexuality, loss of confidence. The list continues, and includes major emotional and psychological breakdown, partly because of the lack of support available to people whose parents die when they are young.

That lack is in part because it is a relatively uncommon experience: most contemporaries in their teens and twenties will not have experienced the loss of a parent. The late teens and twenties is the time when we try to establish our independence of our parents, when we break away, knowing the security of home and parental love is still there for us. The death of a parent removes that security just at the point when the pressures to sit exams, get a job, establish one's own identity, are so strong.

Add to that the overwhelming sense of obligation some young people, particularly the eldest, feel to care for their bereaved parent and their other siblings, and one can see why many young bereaved people have a real problem getting through their grief for themselves. If one then considers what they feel if the death is a violent one, or a suicide, one has some sense of why it is that they have problems that often haunt them throughout their lives.

Abrams deals with these issues sensitively and helpfully, not least because she herself lost her father at 18 and her stepfather two years later, both people in whose memories she now takes considerable delight, since herself becoming a bereavement counsellor. For while Rosemary Wells is helpful, particularly to parents and teachers helping children deal with grief, her book is not written out of the same kind of experience. She herself was widowed and left with young children; she has helped children to grieve. But Abrams tells a personal story.

The Sheldon Press titles designed to help parents cope with a variety of issues make a useful addition to school bookshelves. Most useful is Rosemary Wells on grief. Sarah Lawson's little book Everything Parents Should Know about Drugs needs more said about the nature of the "drug scene" and more about what kinds of drugs are common at present. Nevertheless, her warning about changes in behaviour patterns is well taken, and her light touch on such a serious question is to be welcomed. Her book on bullying and Rosemary Wells' on divorce have also got some useful hints for parents trying to help children. Both suffer from being too short, however, and Sheldon Press should be encouraged to allow its authors to be more expansive, and to tell more stories.

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